ELLE'S BISTRO - Good, honest eats from a cozy family diner
The first thing that catches my eye upon entering Elle’s Bistro is the colourful plastic play station, happily being used by a bouncing baby who appears to be hanging out with his grandmother. I assume they’re guests, and inwardly commend Elle’s for having such an advanced toy selection for babies. Then I notice a crib, tucked in the corner between the large front window facing Barrington Street and a chalkboard wall announcing the dessert menu.
Owner Mary Ellen Planetta (“Elle” for short) and her partner Pete Slipp welcomed their son Jacob — the bouncing baby — into the world barely two months after opening the restaurant. I’ve never seen two people run a diner while simultaneously caring for a newborn, but they make it look like nothing. A few minutes after I show up, grandma (Slipp’s mother) is relieved of her duties, and mom and dad take over. When I sit down, Planetta promptly heads for the kitchen to prepare an order of bacon balls (more about those later) and I’m greeted by Slipp and baby Jacob, who I must say is one of the most chill babies I’ve ever met. “He’s a regular fixture here,” explains Slipp.
The reputation of Elle’s bacon balls precede them; I’ve seen foodies and local bacon enthusiasts raving about them on Twitter. Planetta drops a generous order of six in front of me, three different kinds. “You’ve got mac ’n’ cheese, P B & J, and these other ones aren’t actually on the menu yet: fluffernutter,” she says. “What is fluffernutter?” I counter, intrigued. Turns out it’s peanut butter and Marshmallow Fluff. The filling is wrapped in bacon and then deep-fried. I try one of each kind, and the mac ’n’ cheese is my favourite; the bacon is crispy but still has a bit of chew, not overdone.
“I’ve always enjoyed the restaurant industry and cooking for people,” says Planetta, who served tables at landmark Halifax diner Cousin’s Restaurant to put herself through university. Aside from what she learned making burgers for herself on the grill there, she credits numerous culinary influences, including her parents, television shows, other restaurants and, of course, her own experimentation. “The Golden Gobbler is from a family restaurant in Sydney that’s been closed for years,” she says about a turkey sandwich served on French toast bread. The menu seems to reflect the owner: easygoing. They offer all-day breakfast and many homestyle items that you’d expect: hot sandwiches, lasagna, salads, soups, plus a huge list of baked goods and desserts.
But it’s the impressive burger selection — they have eleven — that sets Elle’s apart from your regular diner. One burger in particular, the jalapeño beer cheeseburger, is becoming well-known, and I order it. Made with beef from Moxsom Meats in Shubenacadie, the burger patty itself has chopped jalapeño inside and is marinated in a St-Ambroise stout. It’s then grilled, topped with glistening candied bacon, crispy onion rings and a cheddar cheese sauce made with pale ale (usually St-Ambroise, but sometimes Propeller). It’s served on a toasted Ace Bakery white bun and arrives in a puddle of cheese sauce, messy, like a burger should be. You can really taste the stout marinade, the beef is juicy and there’s a fantastic crunch from the freshly-made onion rings. The candied bacon offers sweet and salty flavours, but it’s the bitterness from the pale ale cheese sauce that balances the entire burger. For a side I’ve chosen Greek salad, and it’s excellent, with an ample amount of feta on top.
Planetta applied for funding through the Centre for Entrepreneurship Education and Development (CEED) to open Elle’s, which she was granted in the summer of 2014. That August she secured the space at 1678 Barrington Street, where Elle’s would open on December 10, 2014. Planetta only took a week off after Jacob was born the following February. “Then we were all back here!” she recalls. Now they’re open weekdays from 7 am to 7 pm, usually with busy breakfast and lunch rushes. On Saturdays and Sundays they open later at 10 am, when the brunch crowd comes in. They close at 5 pm on Saturdays and 3 pm on Sundays — to get some much-needed rest.
“We’re hoping we can run the family business together,” says Planetta about Slipp, who is currently on paternity leave from his job offshore. So far so good. “We have a really good mix of regulars who we see every day, and tourists,” says Planetta. My guess is they’re earning customers through flavourful comfort food at diner prices (the old school hamburger is just $4.35, for example), their friendly, laid-back demeanours . . . and an adorable baby.
As I was leaving, about an hour after arriving, Jacob was asleep. “I was here at the end of the pregnancy,” says Planetta. “He’s used to it.” Talk about a family affair.